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Text Transcript: The Power of Reinforcement (Part 2)

You learned in the last video that if a behaviour is happening more often, for longer durations, or with greater intensity over time, whether it’s a behaviour you want to see or one you don’t want to see, something is reinforcing it.

You also learned that it’s important to identify a variety of items that MIGHT work as reinforcers for learners with ASD.

So let’s talk about some ways to identify potential reinforcers for your learners.

Remember that just because a learner likes something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be an effective reinforcer.

Nevertheless, identifying what the learner likes is the place to start.

We’re going to talk about some ways you can do that: One strategy that can be quite helpful is simply asking people who know the learner well, like parents, siblings, teachers, educational assistants, or caregivers, what the learner really likes.

You might also be able to ask the learner himself or herself.

You can go about this in a number of different ways.

The easiest approach is just having a conversation about the toys, items, activities, foods, and so on, that the learner likes, and writing down all of the items identified.

Sometimes, however, a more structured discussion will help you get better information.

In that case, you can use a survey or checklist to gather information on different categories of potential reinforcers, and ask the family member or others whether or not the learner likes each item on the list.

A survey or checklist can be a helpful starting point because it may be hard for people to think of everything the learner likes off the top of their head.

Starting with a checklist can help get the conversation and ideas flowing.

A good idea is to leave space to add extra items because each individual learner may have some preferred items or activities that no one else has thought of before.

You can use either the checklist or survey as the basis of a discussion, or you can give everyone a copy and ask them to check off the items the learner likes and to add any preferred items that are not already on the list.

There is a sample checklist in the Learning Guide to help you get started.

Another strategy for identifying learner preferences is to observe the learner engaging with different toys, items, foods, and activities.

There are a few different ways you can identify a learner’s preferences through direct observation: The first is called a Free Access Preference Assessment When using a Free Access Preference Assessment, allow the learner free access to a variety of items in the natural environment and observe and record what the learner does and what items and activities they interact with.

This might happen in the classroom setting, the school playground, or in the learner’s home.

The learner is given free access to all of the items that would typically be available in that environment.

You can also add some new items that might not typically be available in that environment, but which you suspect the learner might like.

Any extra items that are added to the environment should be ones that COULD be offered to the learner in that setting if they turn out to be high-preference items.

For example, you wouldn’t necessarily want to add water toys to the classroom setting if this type of activity is not possible in that setting.

However, if water toys are an option at home, the learner’s preference for that activity might be assessed at home.

If you use a free-access preference assessment, be sure to do the following: note which items or activities the learner engages with, and in what order record how long the learner engages with each item.

It is often best to record the duration of engagement with each item in seconds, because a learner may play with some items for only a few seconds, and with others for several minutes.

You want to be sure that you can compare the items directly and rank them based on duration at the end of the observation.

We’ve provided some sample recording sheets for each of the preference assessment approaches in the Learning Guide.

Here is a short video example of what a free-access preference assessment can look like.

The learner has free access to a variety of items in the natural environment, and interacts with several of the items for varying lengths of time.

Teacher: Hi Marcus, come on in.

I have a little work to do but, you can just plays with some of the things on the shelf if you like.

Teacher: Okay Marcus, come on over I'm ready.

Here’s another way to use direct observation to identify highly- preferred items or activities.

It is called a Single Stimulus Preference Assessment.

You will remember from the previous video on “Reinforcement and Reinforcers” that a stimulus can be an item, activity, interaction, or sensation.

For a single stimulus preference assessment, you can gather up a variety of toys, games, activities, and foods that you think the learner may like and offer them one item at a time.

You will need to: keep track of the items or activities you present and the order in which you present them note whether the learner accepts and shows interest in each one and record how long the learner engages with the item or activity For example, you might present a game, and the learner may not show any interest in it or accept it at all.

You would make note of that on your preference assessment sheet.

On the other hand, you might present art supplies, and the learner may use them for several minutes.

In that case, you would record how long the learner uses the supplies.

It’s a good idea to present each item more than once to make sure the learner has enough opportunities to respond to each item.

Once you’ve presented several items and recorded how the learner responds, you can rank the items in order of preference based on the learner’s response and the amount of time they spend engaging with each item.

You may also want to try out some items that the learner isn’t familiar with.

You may find some highly preferred items that no one even anticipated.

If you include new items, you will probably need to show the learner how the item works or what to do with it, and it may be helpful to play with the item along with the learner for a few minutes.

This is a great way to help your learner discover new and fun activities.

It’s also a great way to pair yourself with reinforcement.

Just be sure that when you record the duration of the learner’s engagement with that item, you don’t include the time that you spent modeling how to play with it.

The next video example shows what this type of preference assessment can look like.

You will notice that the adult has control of all of the items, and presents the items, one at a time, to the learner.

The learner’s response to each item is recorded.

Teacher: Here's something for you to draw on.

Marcus: Alright.

Teacher: oh, I love that.

That's awesome.

Teacher: I brought a book for you to read.

Oh, you're all done with that?

Thanks, awesome.

Here, play with this one.

oh, that one is not much fun eh?

What about a paddle ball?

Give that a try.

Boy, that was a lot of fun huh?


Another direct observation approach is a Forced Choice Preference Assessment, which involves presenting 2 items at a time to see which one the learner selects.

When you use this method: each item should be presented more than once during the session the pair of items presented should be different each time you should vary where you place each item; for example, if a set of blocks is one of the items, be sure that you don’t always present it on the right.

Mix up the placement, and switch sides to be sure that the learner doesn’t just pick the item on the right or the left.

In the best case scenario, you would present each item paired with every other item once during the assessment so you are directly comparing every item with each of the others.

You would also assess the items more than once, presenting them on the opposite side during the second assessment.

For example, testing the learner’s preference for blocks, music, puzzles, and jump rope would involve: first presenting the blocks with the music, then puzzles with the jump rope, next, the blocks with puzzles, music with the Jump rope, blocks with the jump rope, and finally presenting the music with puzzles This might sound complicated, but there’s actually an easy way to keep track of which items you present, how they are paired, and where they are placed in relation to the learner.

We’ve created some sample “Forced Choice Preference Assessment Data Sheets” to give you an easy way to track and record the items.

You will find these templates in the Learning Guide.

For the four items I just mentioned, it would look like this.

As you watch the next video, notice that the instructor presents pairs of items to the learner, one pair at a time, and that each item is presented with every other item at least once.

In the video example, we’ve only used 4 different items to show you what a paired stimuli preference assessment looks like, but it is generally recommended to use 6 to 8 or even more items for each assessment.

We’ve included a variety of data sheet templates, with varying numbers of items, in the Learning Guide to give you some examples.

Teacher: So I brought some new things to play with Today, Have you seen one of these?

Look it lights up when you push the buttons, and you can spin it like this, or I've seen people spin it like this too.

You wanna try it out?

Wow you're really fast!

Pretty cool huh?

Look how all the lights blend together.

Let's see if we can turn these off.

See if I can make it work right.

And then I brought a popper.

If you turn it inside out like this, and put it on the table, and see if we can make it pop.

Marcus: Whoa!

Teacher: Good catch!

Boy, you're quick!

And I brought a bouncy ball.

How are you with bouncy balls?

Good Job.

Boy, excellent.

You have good coordination.

And then, I brought a new super hero book for us to take a look at.


Marcus: yup!

Teacher: Alright, so...

Choose one.

Awesome, go ahead.

Good Job!

Choose one.

Hey, great!

We'll try that again a little bit later.

Choose one of these.

Can you make it fly?

See how high you can make it go this time Good.

Boy, great catch!


Choose one of those.


Choose one of these.

Good Job!

Choose one of those.

Wow, that went really fast that time.

Another type of preference assessment, the Multiple Choice Preference Assessment, involves presenting the learner with a few items, often three or four, at a time, and observing and recording which ones they approach, select, and spend the most time with.

There are a couple of different ways to use this approach.

The first involves presenting a number of items, allowing the learner to select one, and then removing the item the learner selects from the set of items offered then next time.

Let’s imagine that you offer a choice between blocks, puzzles, music, and a jump rope in the first presentation, and the learner chooses the puzzles.

You would allow the learner to play with the puzzle, then offer the next set of items.

The next set would now include the blocks, music, and jump rope, but not the puzzles.

Whichever of these items the learner selects would not be included in the next set of items, and so on.

Essentially the item the learner prefers most is eliminated each time, until there is only one item remaining.

That allows you to directly rank the items in order of preference.

The other way to conduct a multiple choice preference assessment is similar, but instead of removing the selected item from the set each time, you keep that item, and replace the items that were not selected.

The next video shows an example of this approach.

Notice that each time the adult presents a new set of items, the one the learner chose the last time is included.

In the first presentation, the learner is given a choice between a grape, a small slice of apple, and a bite of a cracker; he selects the apple.

Since the apple was his preferred item in the first presentation, this time the teacher offers the apple again, but now she has replaced the items that were not selected last time.

She’s offering a slice of apple, a mini chocolate chip, and a piece of a pretzel.

This time the learner selects the mini chocolate chip.

The teacher would continue to test the learner’s preference for a variety of snack items using this pattern keeping the selected item each time, and replacing the items that were not selected.

If you use the multiple choice preference assessment, one important rule to keep in mind is that you should present categories or types of items together, rather than mixing them up.

For example, it’s a good idea to assess preference for toys in one session, snack items during a different session, leisure items at another time, and so on.

If you mix the categories within a session, offering toys and snacks, and social games, all at once, then the learner’s preference for types of things may overshadow preference for specific things.

Also, for many individuals, food items are more highly preferred than other types of potential reinforcers, so mixing categories may not give an accurate picture of the learner’s overall preferences.

If you keep the categories separate, and present a few items from one category together at a time, you can have more confidence that you are evaluating the learner’s preference for each of the specific items you have presented.

When you are working with learners with ASD, it’s important to identify many preferred items and activities so you will have lots of potential reinforcers to work with.

Remember that you will need to vary the reinforcers frequently when you’re helping the learner build new skills.

You want to be sure the learner doesn’t get tired of any of the items or lose interest in them.

It is important to assess your learner’s preferences on a regular basis.

The only way to know whether or not something functions as a reinforcer is to measure its effect on behaviour.

Just because an item is highly preferred does not mean that it will have any effect on the learner’s behaviour, or it may be effective in one situation but not another.

Until we know for sure if there will be a change in behaviour, we can only refer to the preferred items as “potential reinforcers.” If you follow the principles of effective reinforcement: you deliver the potential reinforcer “contingently,” that is as a result of the desired behaviour and only that behaviour you deliver the potential reinforcer immediately after the desired behavior the amount of the reinforcer is appropriate If you follow these principles and the behaviour doesn’t happen more often, with more intensity, or for a longer duration than it did before, then you don’t have an effective reinforcer in that situation.

On the other hand, if you deliver the potential reinforcer and you see an increase in the desired behaviour, you know you’ve found a reinforcer that will be effective.

The material in the Learning Guide will help you remember how to identify potential reinforcers for your learner.

Here are a few important points to keep in mind: There are a number of different strategies for identifying highly- preferred items for individual leaners, including asking the learner and those who know him or her well; using a survey or checklist; or observing how the learner responds to a variety of items, leisure activities, foods, and other experiences.

Just because an item or activity is highly preferred by a learner does not mean that it will function as a reinforcer.

Even if it does act as a reinforcer in one situation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be an effective reinforcer in every situation And finally, the only way to know if you have an effective reinforcer is to test its effect on the specific behaviour you are trying to increase.

If you follow the principles of reinforcement and you see a change in the behaviour in the desired direction, you can be confident that you’ve found a reinforcer that will work for your learner.

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